Cate Blanchett and company turn Walsh Bay into Sydney's West End
Sydney’s arts hub Walsh Bay has big ambitions. It wants to be compared with theatrical meccas such as London’s West End and New York City‘s Broadway.
Its principal proponents, including Oscar winner Cate Blanchett, believe it's only beginning to fulfill its potential.
Blanchett, the artistic co-director of the Sydney Theatre Company, is one of the leading lights of a local arts scene she describes as “a hothouse."
The pier precinct has become a hive of internationally acclaimed artistic endeavor. More than a dozen institutions call it home.
These include: Sydney Dance Company, Ausdance, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Gondwana Choirs, Sydney Children’s Choir, The Song Company, Australian Theatre For Young People, Regional Arts, Accessible Arts and Bangarra Dance Theatre.
Each resides on Walsh Bay’s Pier 4/5 -- a 60-year-old ironbark wharf-warehouse once used to load cargo ships.
An economic driver, says Blanchett
“Walsh Bay is in a unique position,” Blanchett says. “It has been converted into premises suitable for creating without sacrificing its historical integrity or context."
“It’s hard to believe Sydney Theatre Company was once a solitary outpost of the arts in Walsh Bay," Blanchett says. "Now with so many artists and companies already resident and more on the way, the development and enhancement of this growing precinct can be a great economic driver… in positioning Sydney as a multi-dimensional global city.”
Blanchett recently starred in an STC production of the Anton Chekhov play, "Uncle Vanya," which was adapted by her husband and co-director, Andrew Upton. Longtime leading actors Jacki Weaver ("Animal Kingdom") and Hugo Weaving ("The Matrix" and "Priscilla") also took to the stage.
Last year, Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman directed Sam Shepard’s "True West," featuring Wayne Blair and Brendan Cowell.
From industrial wharf to these guys
The transformation of Sydney’s arts scene began in 1983 when Sydney Theatre Company announced the former Walsh Bay wharves as its new home.
In 1998, one of Australia’s leading indigenous arts bodies, Bangarra Dance Theatre, moved into Walsh Bay.
Stephen Page has been Bangarra’s artistic director for 20 years. He also directed the indigenous sections of the Sydney Olympic Games opening and closing ceremonies and choreographed the 2010 film, "Bran Nue Day."
“Bangarra is the only indigenous foundation here (at Walsh Bay) and is important -- especially from a black perspective and indigenous perspective of the arts,” Page says.
“The arts tell a huge part of the story of Aboriginal culture and Bangarra celebrates what it inherits," he says. "We are the modern caretakers of the evolution of indigenous culture and we are inspired by that. We are the modern version of the traditional experience.”
Rafael Bonachela, artistic director of the Sydney Dance Company, has worked and danced all over the world. She nominates Walsh Bay as “the most incredible place I have ever worked.”
“It is so beautiful and there is so much activity,” Bonachela says. “With all the companies that are down at Walsh Bay, it is so vibrant and exciting and full of ideas.
“There is so much going on all the time that I hardly ever have any quiet time.”
Into the future: Sydney's "beating heart"
Submissions have been made to the NSW State Government to further expand the Walsh Bay precinct to include the unoccupied Pier 2/3, which is situated next to Pier 4/5. Blanchett believes that expansion will continue to advance the arts scene in Sydney.
“The wharf demonstrates in its very daily existence that the precinct could be a vibrant workplace … not just a slick soulless showcase,” Blanchett said in an address at Sydney’s Town Hall in March.
Blanchett says Walsh Bay should be a world leader as an arts precinct that is environmentally sensitive.
“Walsh Bay is perfectly placed to be the world’s first green arts precinct and the beating heart of a cultural area stretching all the way from Barangaroo through to the Sydney Opera House,” she said.